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Composting Organic Materials in Organic Crop Production

Composting organic material produces compost – something that all soils require. Compost will improve any soil in Texas, whether it’s black gumbo in the Prairies or sandy soil in West Texas. In other words, it’s safe to say that Texas has a diverse range of soil types. Clays, silts, sands, and the extremely coveted sandy loam are all to be seen in the Lone Star State. The pH of Texas soils varies greatly, ranging from 4.5 to 8.5. However, the one constant among these variations is that composted organic matter should be worked into or on top of the soil in order to create productive fields.


Nevertheless, making compost does not simply involve letting a heap of organic material decompose into nutrient-rich compost over time. Rather, manufacturing compost necessitates using proper techniques to ensure that decomposition occurs in a regulated manner. If making compost isn’t something that interests you, we recommend getting Turn Compost to do your composting for you. But if you are intrigued about creating your own compost, we’re here to talk through the process.

What is compost and why’s it so important?


Composting is the process of reducing organic substances from large volumes of rapidly decomposing materials to small volumes of slowly decomposing materials. The ratio of carbon to other elements is brought into equilibrium, preventing temporary nutrient immobilization. 


The nutrients in compost are slowly released into the soil, making them available for use by plants – this is one of the many advantages of adding compost to soil. If undecomposed organic materials are added to soil, decomposition will occur, but nutrients will be locked up and unavailable to plants during the breakdown process. If excessive amounts of organic material are added, this may result in nutrient shortages and poor growth.

So what’s wrong with the old way of making compost?


The original way to make compost involved gathering organic materials into a pile and letting them sit for a year before using them. The biggest benefit of this method is that it requires minimal time or effort. However, there are a few notable disadvantages. Firstly, this method can use up a lot of space, depending on how much compost you’re making. Secondly, it’s possible that some nutrients will be leached due to rain. And finally, the material on the outside of your compost “heap” may not be subjected to high enough temperatures, meaning seeds and insect larvae are not destroyed. 

Making compost that decomposes quickly


As we can see, the original method of producing high-quality compost for organic farms is not so effective. Accordingly, a more appropriate compositing method has become popular, and as a result of much innovative research, the following standards have been developed for generating superior-grade compost. 


Compost is created by combining brown and green organic materials and allowing them to decay into soil additions over time. Compost can be generated by fencing off an area and adding raw, organic materials to it. The area should be exposed to the sun, well-drained, and rotated on a regular basis to incorporate new compost piles.


A small-scale producer can create or purchase a composting container to speed up the process. Using a bin with a lid is especially beneficial as rotting food may attract unwanted animals. Some plastic bins stand alone, while others are supported by a stand – the latter are easier to turn and mix. Free-standing composters are more difficult to turn and mix than raised composters.


Let’s have a look at what factors have the greatest impact on compost quality.

1. Size and material requirements for composting organic materials


According to the National Safety Council’s glossary of terminology, compost can be defined as “decomposed organic material that is generated when microorganisms break down waste and biodegradable trash, resulting in organic fertilizer.” Soil structure is hugely improved by compost for a number of reasons. For example, earthworms are attracted to compost, which helps to aerate the soil, and nutrients in compost gradually feed plants throughout the growing season.


Material that is broken into pieces measuring between 1/2 and 1 1/2 inches in diameter will compost the best. As soft material disintegrates quickly, it does not need to be cut up into very small pieces. The harder and woodier the material is, the smaller the pieces should be. While woody materials should be pretty much ground up, most herbaceous materials shouldn’t be shredded too finely. A sharp shovel is a good tool to use to chop up your material. You can also snip your material into small pieces using shears while pruning plants – this takes some effort, but the rewards (and the exercise!) are worth it.


Materials used in a compost heap can include the following:


  • Kitchen scraps, such as vegetable skins, fruit, and eggshells
  • Leaves and grass clippings
  • Paper bags, cardboard boxes, cereal and milk cartons, and paper can be used as dry material, but they must be finely chopped or shredded.
  • Newspapers can be used if shredded and separated so they do not mat – matting is bad because it prevents oxygen, which is necessary for rapid decomposition, from reaching the compost.
  • Straw or hay
  • Peanut shells
  • Manure from your own farm or local farms
  • Coffee grounds and tea bags (many coffee shops, including Starbucks, save used coffee grounds just for producers)



2.  Maintain an optimal carbon-nitrogen relationship


Compostable materials should have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1 for the composting process to be most effective. This is difficult to achieve exactly, but mixing together equal volumes of green plant material and naturally dried plant material yields a C:N ratio of around 30 to 1. Manure can be used to substitute green plant material as a nitrogen source. Green materials are any substances that have been cut green and allowed to dry. 


Organic matter will disintegrate quickly if the C:N ratio is less than 30/1, but nitrogen will be lost. The nitrogen will be released as ammonia – if this odor is detected in or near a composting pile, it means valuable nitrogen is being lost to the atmosphere. 


This can be countered by adding sawdust to the area that is giving off an ammonia odor. Sawdust is high in carbon and low in nitrogen (a high C:N ratio), meaning it absorbs any excess nitrogen and increases the C:N ratio. This is the only thing that should be added to a pile once it has been started, aside from water if it becomes dry. As composting can be done at any time, it may be necessary to cover the pile during the rainy season to keep the composting materials from becoming too wet.


3. Maintain the moisture content of your compost


Composting is most effective when the moisture content of the materials in your pile is around 50%. This is difficult to quantify, but with practice, the proper amount of moisture can indeed be calculated. Instead of being moist, the compost pile should have the texture of a dry rag when squeezed. Too much moisture will result in a mushy mass, and decomposition will be slow and produce unpleasant odors. These unpleasant odors are a sign of anaerobic decomposition, which we don’t want. Decomposition should take place in an oxygen-rich compost pile that is well-aerated. On the other hand, decomposition will be delayed or non-existent if the organic material is excessively dry.


4. Keep your compost pile hot


Heat is very important in the process of rapid composting, and is supplied by the respiration of the microorganisms that break down the organic materials. A heated compost pile will eliminate weed seeds and pathogens from developing.  


To prevent heat loss and build up the necessary amount of heat, your compost pile should have a volume of at least 36 inches cubed. If it’s less than 32 inches cubed, this rapid composting process will not take place. Heat retention is better in bins than in open piles – plus using bins is far neater. High temperatures favor microorganisms that are rapid decomposers. These microorganisms function at around 160℉, and a good pile of compost will maintain itself at around that temperature. If desired, you can use a thermometer to measure the temperature inside your compost heap. 


5. Turn your compost pile on a daily basis


To keep the compost pile from overheating, it must be turned on a daily basis. If the temperature of the pile rises above 160°F, the microbes will die, the pile will cool down, and the process will have to be started all over again. However, if the compost heap is turned regularly, it will not overheat and will be aerated.


The pile should be turned in such a manner that the material on the edges is transferred to the middle. As a result, all of the material should achieve an optimal temperature at different times. Only the core of the pile will be maintained at the optimal temperature as a result of heat loss around the edges. As turning is required, it’s preferable to have two bins so that the material can be transferred from one to the other. 


Bins with lids maintain heat more effectively than those without. As the compost decomposes, the pile shrinks, and since the bin is no longer full, some heat is lost at the top. To prevent this loss of heat, a piece of polyethylene plastic that is somewhat larger than the top area of the bin should be placed on the compost and tucked in around the edges after it has been turned.


It will take less time to produce your compost if the material in the pile is turned every day. The greater the time between turnings, the longer the composting process will take.


6. Don’t add additional material to a compost pile


Don’t add any additional materials to the compost pile once it has been started – except from sawdust and water (as mentioned here). The reason for this is that the material needs a certain amount of time to decompose, thus everything should be added right at the beginning so as not to lengthen the overall decomposition time. 


7. Prohibited materials in a compost pile


  • Ashes from a stove or fireplace
  • Manure from carnivorous (meat-eating) animals should never be added to a composting pile, as it may contain disease-producing microbes. It cannot be guaranteed that the composting process will destroy these organisms, so such manures should be avoided. On the other hand, manure from herbivorous animals, such as cattle, horses, goats and fowl, can be used in a compost pile.
  • Soil only adds weight to a compost pile and makes it harder to be turned. 


8. Signs of a healthy compost pile


  • Rapid decomposition can be detected by a pleasant odor.
  • Heat is produced inside the pile. 
  • Water vapor is given off when turning the pile.  
  • White fungi will grow on the decomposing organic material, 
  • The pile reduces in volume.
  • The material will change in color to dark brown. 


9. When will my compost pile be ready to use?


As the composting progresses, the temperature of your pile will decline, and eventually no heat will be created. This means your compost is ready to use. If the material was not chopped into small enough pieces at the start, you can sift it through a one-inch-mesh chicken wire to remove any large undecomposed fragments. These can be thrown into the next pile and will ultimately degrade.

10. Storing decomposed compost


Excess material should be kept as dry as possible during storage until a new pile is created. Materials that are stored when moist will begin to decompose, and the compost pile will suffer as a result. Dry compost can be stored in bags until needed. 


Composting may appear to be a lot of labor for a crop producer. However, the benefits in terms of soil nutrition and health make it worthwhile for every organic crop grower. The procedure is simple, and by following the necessary recommendations, high-quality compost can be made from your waste products. Investing a little time and effort into composting will result in a rich medium that can greatly aid your organic crop production.